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Top 10 Genealogy Questions

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Genealogists ask a lot of questions. That's what research is all about! Some of the same questions keep coming up over and over, however, particularly among those new to tracing their family tree. Here are ten of the most popular genealogy questions, with the answers you need to get you started on the rewarding quest for your roots.

1. How Do I Begin to Trace My Family Tree?

Smiling woman at table with old photographs and genealogical tree
Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images
Start with yourself and work backwards through the generations, recording each person's major life events on ancestor charts. Interview your relatives - especially the elder ones - and ask them if they have any family documents, photos, baby books, or heirlooms. Don't forget to enjoy the journey - what you learn about your heritage is more important than how many generations back you can take your family tree.
More: Begin Tracing Your Family Tree: Step by Step

2. What Does My Last Name Mean?

Only occasionally does your last name provide insight into where your family originally came from. The same surname often originates in many different places or has multiple possible meanings. Or it may be that the present incarnation of your surname bears little resemblance to the one carried by your distant ancestor due to spelling variations or anglicization. It is fun, however, to learn what your last name means and how it was derived.
More: How to Trace the Origin of Your Surname

3. Where Can I Find the Book on My Family?

Many people curious about their roots expect to begin and end their search quickly, hoping to find their family tree already done. It doesn't often happen, but both published and unpublished family histories can be found at public libraries, in the collections of local historical and genealogical societies, and on the Internet. Try a search in the Library of Congress and Family History Library catalogs. Review all published genealogies carefully, as most contain some inaccuracies.

4. What is the Best Genealogy Software?

It may sound cliche, but the best genealogy program basically boils down to finding the one that's right for you. Almost all family tree software does a good job of letting you enter your family data and view and print it in a wide variety of formats. The differences add up in the features and extras. Try them out before you buy - most genealogy software programs offer free trial versions or a money-back guarantee.
More: Genealogy Software Roundup

5. How Do I Make a Family Tree?

Family trees are meant to be shared and most people want to find a way to do it beautifully or creatively. A number of fancy family tree charts can be purchased or printed. Full-size wall charts make more room for big families, and great conversation starters at family reunions. Alternatively, you can create a family history book, CD-ROM, scrapbook, or even a cookbook. The point is to have fun and be creative when sharing your family's heritage.
More: 5 Ways to Chart & Display Your Family Tree

6. What is a First Cousin, Twice Removed?

How am I related to so and so is a question that often comes up at family reunions. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins are easy, but once you get into more distant family relationships most of us get lost in the tangle. The trick to determining the actual relationship between two family members is to start with the ancestor they both have in common. From there, a handy cousin calculator or relationship chart can do the rest.
More: Kissin' Cousins - Family Relationships Explained

7. Am I Related to Someone Famous?

Have you heard that you're descended from a president or royalty? Or perhaps you suspect a family connection to a movie star or celebrity? Maybe you even share a surname with someone famous, and wonder if you're somehow related. Just like any other family tree research, you need to start with yourself and work back toward a connection with the famous individual. Many famous family trees can be found online, which can help in making a connection.
More: Researching Famous (or Infamous) Ancestors

8. Where Can I Find Birth, Death and Marriage Records?

Vital records, called such because they record life's "vital" events, are the building blocks of a family tree. Records of the births, marriages and deaths of your ancestors will generally be civil (government) records back to a certain point in time, which varies by state, parish or country. Prior to that, church or parish registers are the most common source for information on vital records. Tombstone records can also provide clues.
More: Where to Find Vital Records - Online and Off

9. What is My Family Coat of Arms?

There are hundreds of companies who will sell you "your family coat of arms" on a t-shirt, mug, or 'handsomely engraved' plaque. They look nice, and make great conversation starters, but actually most likely have nothing to do with your family. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families or surnames, and may rightfully be used only by the male line descendants of the person to whom the coat of arms was originally granted.
More: Heraldry & Coats of Arms - A Primer for Genealogists

10. Where Did My Ancestors Come From?

What town or country did your ancestors originally come from? Did they sail across the ocean to America or Australia? Or move down the road from one town to the next? Learning where they came from is the key to a new branch in your family tree. Read up on history to learn about common migration patterns or check with relatives for info on family customs or surname origins. Records of death, marriage and immigration may also hold a clue.
More: Finding the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor

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